Italy: television dominates public opinion

The Italian media, which has close ties to political and corporate interest groups as well as organised crime, is concentrated in the hands of a powerful few and dominated by television.

Silvio Berlusconi (© picture-alliance/dpa)
Silvio Berlusconi (© picture-alliance/dpa)
Particularly in the south, journalists practice self-censorship to avoid run-ins with the mafia. But freedom of the press is also compromised by Italian politics, and though the influence of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has waned since his resignation in 2011, the business network he has been building up since 2011 still poses a threat to media pluralism. His media empire includes Italy’s largest publishing house as well as the three largest private TV channels, which between them siphon off around 60 percent of all advertising revenue on the Italian market.

In 2010 the international NGO Freedom House for the first time rated Italy among those countries where the press was no longer "free" but only "partly free". The NGO explained its decision pointing on the one hand to the monopoly exerted by a handful of media companies and on the other to a tendency towards politically motivated restrictions on press freedom. On the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index Italy ranks 77th - behind the Republic of Moldavia.

Particularly during Berlusconi's four terms in office, laws were introduced that eroded press freedom. One consequence was a tightening of the libel law in 2012. The Senate has passed a law carrying a penalty of up to three years imprisonment for journalists who publish tapped phone conversations but it has not yet been approved by parliament. The revelations of the Vatileaks scandal of 2011 and the so-called Vatileaks 2 trial in June 2016 have continued to fuel debate about confidential documents.

Takeovers of media companies are a subject of endless debate in Italy. The power struggle for control of Italy's largest daily, the liberal-conservative Corriere della Sera, has been going on for years now. Major Italian companies such as car manufacturer Fiat and fashion label Tod's hold shares in RCS publishers. Since July 2016 media entrepreneur and Berlusconi protégé Urbano Cairo has controlled almost half of the shares. His company Cairo Communication owns several tabloids and cooking, gardening and travel magazines, as well as the television channel La7.

In 2016 two other large Italian publishing houses, Gruppo editorale L’Espresso and Editrice Italiana (Itedi), signed a memorandum paving the way for the foundation of a vast new publishing group. The merger, which is due to take place at the beginning of 2017 after approval from the Italian antitrust authorities, will mean that a number of Italy’s leading dailies such as La Repubblica and La Stampa are published by the same media house.

The media crisis has led to a steady decline in the circulations of Italian newspapers, with a drop of at least 33 percent over the past ten years. Most newspapers are trying to compensate for these losses by introducing payment models for their online content. One positive aspect is that the culture of journalistic commentary has a long tradition in Italy. Extensive commentaries are the order of the day, and the more flowery the language, the better. The Internet has prompted a revival of this tradition, and there are now countless blogs.

However, television is still the medium of choice for commentators, for it has by far the largest audiences. Alongside public television and Berlusconi's Mediaset, a third player, the private channel La 7, has made a name for itself and in 2013 was bought by the publisher Urbano Cairo.

Press Freedom Rating:

Reporters Without Borders: 52nd place (2017)
Freedom House: 63rd place – status: partly free (2016)

Updated: May 2017
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